Where The Hell Have You Been, Loca? — Reflections On The Twilight Renaissance

We’re driving down Great Western Highway, westbound from Sydney to Katoomba. As the morning fog gives way to a light sprinkle, our trusty Honda Jazz accelerates into an ethereal blur of blue-green tree canopy. In the rain, Australian blue gums could be mistaken for the fir trees of America's Pacific Northwest. 
Noticing the cinematic similarity, my partner Mason bursts into the breathy riff of Blue Foundation’s most streamed song. His lyric-less rendition of Eyes on Fire cracks me up, plunging us into the verdant town of Forks, Washington — the hometown of Stephenie Meyer’s fictional, sparkly vampires. 
Though it was initially released in 2005, the Twilight Saga is currently in the grips of a pop culture comeback. Affectionately dubbed the “Twilight Renaissance”, Bella Swan and Co.’s resurging popularity is now documented by endless TikTok spoofs that involve bad wigs, bland parkas and re-enactments of Bella’s “ketchup thing”. In the TwilightTok corner of the internet, unironic adoration mingles with sarcastic enjoyment. 
You can find everything from influencers promoting Twilight tourism in Washington State with Bon Iver’s Roslyn as the backdrop to Kiwi content creator Tyler Warwick’s feature-length parody of the first film (he’s also shared a bunch of Twilight reenactments on TikTok in an Australian accent). Teenage heartthrob Robert Pattinson even came out of the woodworks earlier this year to playfully berate Batman co-star Zoe Kravitz, affirming that “it’s not cool to be a [Twilight] hater anymore”. 

In the TwilightTok corner of the internet, unironic adoration mingles with sarcastic enjoyment.

Bella Swan and Edward Cullen have gained cult-classic status, with cinemas running movie marathons rivalling the likes of Pirates of the Caribbean. I guess we can say this is Edward “it’s-the-fluorescents” Cullen’s world and we’re all just living in it. 
Back in 2008, I was barely a tween when Twilight launched onto the big screen with its iconic blue-green tint. It had the same vampiric hold on me then as it does now that I’m in my early twenties. I remember spending the better part of my adolescence wishing I was Bella Swan — able to attract a supernaturally hot boyfriend without needing too much of a personality. I was only one fan in a global community, but unfortunately for us mostly female Twihards, cultural criticism against Twilight lovers was at times, cruel.
The media mocked the teens, middle-aged mums and gender-diverse folk sporting glittery t-shirts and placards that read “Team Edward” or “Team Jacob”. At a 2008 comic book convention, male fans of other fantasy subgenres accused Twilight fans of “[ruining] Comic-Con”. To rub more salt in the fandom’s wound, the film industry itself was not kind to director Catherine Hardwicke, with IMDb lambasting the first instalment with a score of 5.3 out of 10.   
I may be looking at the Cullen Renaissance with blue-green tinted glasses, but don’t mistake me for an unwavering Twilight apologist. While I don’t begrudge author Stephenie Meyer any of her commercial and pop culture success, I can still acknowledge valid criticism around the source material.
First, there’s the problematic representation of adolescent relationships. I’m not sure we can even call it that, as Edward “hold-on-tight-spider-monkey” Cullen is 104 years old when he meets 17-year-old Bella. Then, there’s Bella’s dogged insistence on martyring herself for all the men in her life. It’s quite telling when the line kicking off the entire franchise is “I’ve never given much thought to how I would die”. Well, I would hope not. 
In her analysis, A Boyfriend to Die For, Professor of Media Studies at the University of Oregon Debra Merskin identifies Edward Cullen as a “compensated psychopath”. She argues that our sparkly love interest shows tell-tale signs of psychopathy but can still “pass for functional in society” — a haunting thought. Edward “as-if-you-could-outrun-me” Cullen is a literal predator who seamlessly blends a gory midweek hunt with sneaking into Bella’s room at night to watch her sleep. 
It’s undeniable — Twilight is a sheerly crafted Mormon-coded parable that discourages pre-marital sex. Our centenarian heartthrob Edward believes he’s going to hell anyways, so why not date the 17-year-old? Meyer kind of just shrugs it off, asking: Well, what did you expect? He’s got fangs, an unnecessarily shiny Volvo, and too much gel in his hair. It’s our fault we like him so much.

From Victorian England to the Twilight Renaissance, not much has changed in society’s treatment of female storytellers.

But at its core, Twilight is a contemporary gothic novel. How could we forget Meyer’s constant barrage of intertextual references to Bella’s dog-eared copy of Wuthering Heights? In fact, the gendered cultural criticism that haunted the Brontës for their “taboo” subject matter eerily echoes the way 21st-century critics went after Twilight’s jugular. Charlotte Brontë famously wrote how being “authoresses” made the Brontës “liable to be looked on with prejudice”. 
From Victorian England to the Twilight Renaissance, not much has changed in society’s treatment of female storytellers, particularly the ones who deal with romance. 
Ironically, or perhaps frustratingly is a better word, it’s the mostly female romance authors who buoy the billion-dollar genre. For the last six years, romance has accounted for a whopping 40% of fiction sales. Have a look at who’s topping Amazon’s Kindle bestsellers. It’s not whisky-swigging Raymond Chandler; it’s the likes of Colleen Hoover, Sarah J Maas, and Meghan Quinn. 
We don’t need to love these women-driven stories, but we do need to respect their astounding commercial and cultural successes. 
Romance narratives create strong, women-led communities. Whether you’re a sincere Twihard or just ironically enjoying Kristen Stewart’s lip twitches, you shouldn’t have to defend Twilight as “just a guilty pleasure”. 
On our group chat called wherehaveyoubeenloca (no caps), my group of girlfriends and I are already planning our next marathon viewing of the Twilight Saga. We can’t wait to squeal in second-hand embarrassment when Jacob scoops our clumsy-yet-dainty heroine up into a giant hug. Taylor Lautner and his poorly-fitted wig will deliver that iconic line in the strangest intonation possible, and we will enjoy it. 
As unabashed Twihards, my girlfriends and I are hellbent on taking the guilty out of pleasures. 
We’re all in our 20s now, and our unwavering commitment to Twilight is evolving as fast as our prefrontal cortexes. Instead of the Edward versus Jacob binary, we can all readily agree that Team Charlie is the way to go. I’d pick an unproblematic (if not slightly boring) human with a dad bod and a fishing obsession over toxic hotties any day. 
Mason occasionally sports a Charlie Swan-esque moustache himself. We only met a couple of months before the first COVID lockdown, but we stuck it out. Quarantined on opposite ends of Sydney, we Netflix-partied the Twilight Saga and left each other snarky comments in the chat box. 
This year, Sydney’s La Niña-battered summer makes our blue gums look a little more like Forks, Washington. So now, whenever we drive through a particularly fir tree-filled gully, Mason belts out Blue Foundation’s iconic riff, and I sit in the passenger’s seat, aux cord and Paramore’s ‘Decode’ at the ready.
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